After five years and 12 Tests Elton Jantjies finally looked like an international-quality flyhalf against France on Saturday.
For the first time in the Green and Gold, Jantjies looked capable of transferring his domestic form, where he has been perceived as the best South African flyhalf for the past two seasons, to the international stage.
And how gratifying was it to see him take the ball to the line, with options to execute around him, and even a tantalising cross-kick that almost resulted in a try.
Jantjies wasn’t allowed to do that last season for the Boks. Allister Coetzee knew Jantjies was a good player, but asked a Ferrari to do a tractor’s job.
Could you imagine John Mitchell as All Blacks coach in ’02 and ’03 asking Carlos Spencer: “Listen mate, I know you like running it, but would you please lie deep and bombard the opposition with Gary Owens for 70 minutes?”
Spencer produced some of the most scintillating performances in a No 10 jersey during those two seasons, and with guys like Dan Carter, Aaron Mauger and Justin Marshall around him to offer alternatives to his style, the Kiwis destroyed most of what was in front of them.
“No World Cup, and by ’04 Spencer had been worked out,” I hear you say at the back.
Fair enough, but if Jantjies is our only fit, half-decent flyhalf, we need him to start, and we need him to work when he starts.
So let’s take a look at what helped Jantjies fire on Saturday – and what he was allowed to do differently than in his previous outings.
In 2016, during the incoming tour against Ireland, Jantjies only carried the ball 17 times in 215 minutes for a meagre total of 60 metres gained.
During the Rugby Championship, Jantjies carried the ball less (11 times in 248 minutes), but with a better result (66 metres).
When the end-of-year tour rolled round, and with the Springboks in full crisis mode, Jantjies only carried the ball twice, for a dismal seven metres in 86 minutes played.
In Super Rugby, Jantjies averages 5.9 metres every time he carries the ball, with a little more than six carries per game.
Even though his average metres gained during the Rugby Championship was better, Jantjies still carried the ball significantly less (3.5 times per game) than what he usually does.
On Saturday Jantjies carried the ball 5 times for 21 metres. He was allowed to play his game, and though he won’t make significant metres, what this does is open up his major strength: using his runners.
Jantjies made a total of 25 passes against the French on Saturday, out of which 24 were classified as good.
Compare that to an average of 18 passes per game for the Boks in 2016, and his Super Rugby average of 27 per game, you can see the significant confidence boost it gives him to be able to take the ball up.
And it’s not like his kicking game is curtailed when he’s allowed to play his natural game either.
Eleven kicks for 315 metres in the outing against the French is not a shabby return. They weren’t aimless either. Captain Warren Whiteley almost collected a wonderfully executed cross-kick, whilst his own kick-chase to set up an attacking lineout in the French 22 would’ve been a personal highlight.
Jantjies only averaged 5.8 kicks from hand for the Boks in 2016.
It looks like the Boks coaching staff have realised that Jantjies thrives playing his own game. The inclusion of Lionel Mapoe ahead of Frans Steyn for the second Test shows that they are starting to believe that Jantjies must be allowed to do what helps his game.
Yes, it was a depleted French team, and this coming Saturday will provide a sterner test of his mettle. But the first Test was a step in the right direction, not just for Jantjies’ confidence as Bok pivot, but also for Coetzee and his staff, in realising that sometimes you need to play to your players’ strengths.
Dawie Boonzaaier is a journalist who was once called a cross between Winnie the Pooh and Francois van Coke. Follow him on Twitter: @dawiboon
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